Whitaker commands attention and never relinquishes it, whether rousing Ugandan villagers with promises of "a government of action, not words" or whispering threats in the ear of his closest advisor. He can be charming, child-like, cagey, crazy and absolutely terrifying in a performance that has Oscar written all over it.
But Whitaker's electrifying rendition of the African despot, whose death squads tortured and killed more than 300,000 Ugandans during his reign of terror in the 1970s, isn't the only good thing about this film. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald combines a sure touch with the same white-knuckle suspense that characterizes his documentaries "One Day in September" and "Touching the Void."
Adapted from Giles Foden's 1998 novel of the same title, the narrative unspools from the bemused perspective of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy of "The Chronicles of Narnia"). Armed with a newly conferred medical degree and sense of adventure, the young Scotsman heads to Africa on a whim. He hopes to make a difference in a land where 80 percent of the locals prefer the witch doctor to the medical community (which includes Gillian Anderson as a doctor's wife). Most of all, this boy just wants to have fun.
Garrigan's sense of humor and playfulness establish a light, comic tone that makes this movie surprisingly entertaining. He's in the right place at the right time to tend to Amin after an accident, impressing the imposing figure with his frankness and the fact that he's a Scot who won't bow down to the Brits. Once Garrigan agrees to become the dictator's personal physician, the journey into the heart of darkness begins.
So does one bothersome element: Nicholas Garrigan is a fictional character. He is not based on a real person relating his true-life experiences with African tribes or sexual encounters with one of Amin's wives.
It's one thing to construct a cautionary tale about a naive outsider becoming a horrified participant and witness to this ruler's well-documented ruthlessness. But it's another to depict black Ugandans in questionable ways and to insinuate that only a white man could make the world take notice of Amin's atrocities.
Still, Whitaker's acting resurrects the dictator and his deeds with stunning immediacy.